Oromo migrations

The Great Oromo migrations also known as the Oromo migrations, were a series of expansions in the 16th and the 17th centuries by the Oromo people from southern Ethiopia, namely the contemporary Borana and Guji zones, into more northerly regions of Ethiopia. The expansion had a profound impact on subsequent historical events occurring in Ethiopia.


Because the Oromo did not keep a written record of the migrations, this article must refer to Ethiopia, Portuguese, and Arabic sources for the reasons behind the migrations. In particular, a 16th-century Tigray monk named Bahrey is the foremost source on the migrations. Written in Ge'ez, his book was called the History of the Galla (Ge'ez ዜናሁ ፡ ለጋላ zēnahu legalla), "Galla" being an older name for "Oromo" that is now considered a pejorative. This book was written in 1593 and details the expansions from 1522 to his age. In addition to his book, further information can be gleaned from other contemporaries such the Ethiopian monk Abba Paulos, Shihab ed-Din's Futuh al-Habasha "Conquest of Abyssinia", João Bermudes, Francisco de Almeida, Jerónimo Lobo, and various royal chronicles (e.g. those of Gelawdewos, Sarsa Dengel, and Susenyos, though that of Sarsa Dengel may have been written by Bahrey).

Early migrations

The early migrations were characterized by sporadic raids by the Oromo on the frontiers of the Ethiopian kingdom. After capturing cattle and other booty, the raiding parties would quickly return to their homelands. Actual settlement of new territories would not begin until the lubaship of Meslé.[1] Luba (Ge'ez ሉባ lūbā) is an "appointed" head of one of the five groups of the Oromo clans.

Mélbah (1522-1530) and Mudena (1530-1538)

According to Bahrey, the earliest Oromo migrations occurred under the Oromo luba Melbah, during the time of Emperor Lebna Dengel. He states that they invaded the neighboring Bale in the Southeast just before the invasions of Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi of Adal (also known as Ahmed Gure) in the north. These early incursions (Oromo: razzia) were limited, however, as the encroaching groups returned to their homeland near the Shebelle River after each raid. Raids continued under Mudena past the Wabi Shebelle, but these groups also returned home shortly.[2]

Kilolé (1538-1546)

After the death of Ahmed Gure Kilolé resumed his predecessors raids, piercing further into Ethiopian territory. Aided by the weakening of both the Ethiopian Kingdom and Adal, he was able to raid as far as the province of Dewaro, north of Bali. Again, however, after each raid, the parties returned to their villages. Bahrey's dating might, however, be off, however, as Shihab ad-din, who wrote a decade before Ahmed Gragn's death, notes a locality named Werre Qallu, an Oromo name, in the province of Dewaro. Francisco de Almeida, however, agreed with Bahrey's dating, affirming that the Galla first began migrating around the time of Ahmed Gragn's invasion (1527).[3]

Bifolé (1546-1554)

During the time of luba Bifolé, the Oromo migration achieved its first major success. While all previous movements had been minor raids on neighboring provinces, under Bifolé new raids were undertaken that began to weaken Ethiopian control. All of Dewaro was pillaged and Fetegar to its north was attacked for the first time.[4] Furthermore, according to Bahrey, the inhabitants of the pillaged areas were enslaved, becoming gebrs (Ge'ez ገብር gabr; Amh. gebr, Tgn. gebri), a term referring more precisely to "tax-paying serfs," similar to the serfs in Ethiopia during feudal times. Emperor Gelawdewos, however, campaigned in the south as a result of these attacks. According to his chronicle, the Emperor defeated the Oromo incursions and made subject to his rule those he captured, preventing further attacks for some time, with further incursions reduced to skirmishes. The initial attacks were significant, however, on a much larger and more devastating scale to the Ethiopian dynasty. Despite his reprisals, Gelawdewos was troubled and was forced to settle refugees in a town of Wej, north of Lake Zway, around 1550-1.[5]


Meslé (1554-1562)

Meslé's time represent a fundamental change in the migrations of the Oromo. Not only were newly taken territories permanently settled by Oromo for the first time, but mules and horses began to be ridden by the first time. The adoption of horseback-riding from the north greatly increased the Oromo fighting power, putting them on par with Ethiopian troops, who were largely unequipped with firearms.[6]

In the new phase of migration adopted under Meslé, the Oromo defeated Gelawdewos's troops in Jan Amora, allowing them to pillage a number of towns. Instead of returning to their homelands, however, they stayed in the new territories. Gelawdewos campaigned against the Oromo as a result, defeating them at 'Asa Zeneb (yet unidentified), but he was nevertheless unable to drive them from the frontier provinces and continued to build the new town in Wej for new refugees.[5]

Oromo migration was not restricted to Ethiopian territories, however, as activities against Adal were also pursued. The forces of Nur ibn Mujahid (r. 1551/2-1567/8), the Amir of Harar, for instance, were soundly defeated by the Oromo. According to Bahrey, there had been "no such slaughter since the Galla first invaded."[5]

Harmufa (1562-1570) and Robalé (1570-1578)

During the luba of Harmufa rule, the Oromo advanced even deeper into Ethiopian territory. With the use of horses, they were able to attack the province Amhara, and even get as far as Begemdir and Angot. Further advances were made under Robalé, during whose time Shewa was pillaged and Gojjam attacked. For the first time, Oromo advances were devastating core Ethiopian provinces, whereas there earlier incursions were simply against frontier provinces. Despite the deeper attacks, the core provinces remained under Ethiopian control, and Emperor Sarsa Dengel carried out punitive expedition in return. One such reprisal in 1573 involved the engagement of Oromo near Lake Zway in a frontier province, whom he defeated, and taking their cattle and distributing it among his subjects who are described in his chronicle as "bec[oming] rich" as a result.[7]

Reprisals under Sarsa Dengel

Forced to fight the Ottomans in the north of his Empire, Sarsa Dengel turned to curb the spread of Oromo in the south in the 1570s. The first mention of his actions is in his short Royal chronicle, which states that he fought a force of Borana Oromo at Lake Zway under a luba named Ambissa. Learning that, after the 1572 rains, the Oromo had taken Wej, the Emperor gathered his forces from throughout Ethiopia to form an army at Gind Beret. From there, Sarsa Dengel headed south, where he found that the Oromo had also taken Maya.[7] Despite the size of his army, he was able to defeat the Oromo in the area, pushing them back to Fetegar, and capture a large number of cattle. Sarsa Dengel again learned in 1574 of Oromo incursions in Shewa, and the pillaging of cattle in lowland Zéma. The Emperor sent Azzaj Halibo with 50 cavalry to the area, who forced the Oromo to flee sent the heads of 80 to the Emperor as trophies. Sarsa Dengel was again forced to head north with his army to confront the Ottoman-backed Bahr negus Yeshaq, but later returned to Wej in 1577-8 to fend off Oromo advances in the area.[8] As a result of the battle in the Mojjo Valley (just east of modern Addis Ababa) against the Borana Oromo, corpses were strewn all over the surrounding countryside. The Emperor then fended off an attack in Dembiya by the Abati Oromo at a place called Weyne Deg'a and as a result of the battle, according to Bahrey, less than ten Oromo survived.[9]

Birmajé (1578-1586)

Despite Sarsa Dengel's military campaigns, the Oromo migration continued to spread northward during this time. It was under luba Birmajé that the Oromo first began to use body-length ox-hide shields. These shields allowed the Oromo to resist arrows and therefore successfully defeat the Mayas. During this time period, the Oromo often came into conflict with Daharagot, one of Sarsa Dengel's commanders, who was often successful. Nevertheless, during this time, the Oromo pillaged Ar'ine in Wej, killing Ethiopian couriers in the process. Further advances were made around Lake Tana, Dembiya, and (old) Damot, which was surrounded and some of whose inhabitants were enslaved.[9]

Mul'eta (1586-1594)

Under luba Mul'eta a large raid (Oromo: dulaguto) was made on Gojjam south of Lake Tana. With the Ottoman situation in the north largely under control, Sarsa Dengel again took the initiative against the Oromo in the south, where he forced the Dawé (or Jawé) Oromo in Wej to flight. (287) Bahrey praised Sarsa Dengel's campaign, stating that he "did not act according to the custom of the kings his ancestors, who, when making war were in the habit of sending their troops ahead, remaining themselves in the rear with the pick of their cavalry and infantry, praising those who went forward bravely and punishing those who lagged behind."[10] Despite Bahrey's praise, Sarsa Dengel was forced to use coercion to draw troops, announced decree that anyone who failed to heed his call to arms would have his house pillaged and property confiscated.[11]

17th century


He was a candidate to the throne of the Ethiopian dynasty which was occupied formerly by Minas and Sersa Dengil. He used to fight for the throne against Susenyos.

See also


  1. Pankhurst, Richard K.P. The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century. The Red Sea Press, Inc.: Asmara, Eritrea, 1997, p.301.
  2. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, pp.281-2.
  3. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, p.282.
  4. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, pp.282-3.
  5. 1 2 3 Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, p.283.
  6. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, pp.283-4.
  7. 1 2 Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, p.285.
  8. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, p.286.
  9. 1 2 Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, p.287.
  10. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, pp.287-8.
  11. Pankhurst, Richard Borderlands, p.288.

Further reading

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